Why do people become activists and organizers for positive social change? Even more importantly, why do they continue to live lives of activism even after they experience the difficulties of this line of work?
And most importantly of all, how do we keep the faith for a lifetime of committed organizing, however long we are given on this earth, not get sidetracked or deflected by the systemâ€™s seeming power or seductive lures?
Iâ€™ve been thinking about this over the past week. One reason Iâ€™ve done so is related to the fact that, between the religious holidays of Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas and the upcoming New Year, the holiday season is a time for past and future reflection.
But itâ€™s also due to some recent, disturbing, email correspondence with a long-time socialist activist who essentially supports the Bush Administrationâ€™s war in Afghanistan.
In his view, those of us on the Left who arenâ€™t doing so just donâ€™t get the need for a tactical alliance with, yes, even the Bush oil-and-war-men to deal with Islamic fundamentalism, the â€œmain dangerâ€ to us all.
He holds to this view even though, in the words of an Associated Press article on December 24th, â€œthe [United Nations] World Food Program estimates that as many as 4 million people could starveâ€ in Afghanistan.
What was not said in that article but what is a fact is that these lives are at risk not primarily because of the Taliban, not because of al-Qaeda, not because of the three-year drought, but because of U.S. actions in and around Afghanistan since September 11th. Those actions have led to the severe disruption of an already-precarious social and economic reality.
A war which puts millions of people at serious risk of starvation is not a war we on the Left should be supporting, especially when there were alternatives, roads not taken by the Bush-ites.
But this is not another Future Hope column about the war. Itâ€™s about how we keep the faith so as not to get sidetracked or seduced from genuinely progressive positions, policies and actions.
One of my new best friends and political comrades, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, talks more about â€œthe least of theseâ€ than anyone Iâ€™ve ever known. He uses this phrase when giving fiery and eloquent speeches, and he uses it on conference calls of five or six people. In both cases he is challenging those listening to him to make â€œthe least of theseâ€ our top priority as we determine how best to move forward towards a new world.
Rev. Sekou is a minister. Some of those on the Left who distrust religion or eschew spirituality may be skeptical of his approach because it is not political enough, not ideologically-grounded, not strategic. >From my experience, Iâ€™d expect those in this category to be white men, predominantly.
There is truth to their critique. If a concern for â€œthe least of these,â€ for the homeless, the hungry, the refugees, the starving, is ALL that one is motivated by, well, to paraphrase something Jesus is alleged to have said, then â€œthe poor will always be with us.â€
Acts of charity and caring, alone, to try to relieve that suffering, absent pro-justice organizing and a mass political movement for a new society, will have the same effect as trying to put bandaids on a gushing, severed artery; it wonâ€™t work. This global capitalist system is a monster that is built upon the human suffering of literally billions around the world.
At the same time, it is an historic fact that both revolutionary individuals and organizations, once exemplary in their willingness to sacrifice for a better world, can change and become hollow shells, or worse, as they grapple with the complexities and difficulties of fundamental social change.
One reason for this, I am convinced, is because of hostility to those who believe that a spiritual grounding to this work is an important component of an ability to keep the faith for the long haul. They take this position even though the best of virtually all religious traditions emphasizes the importance of taking seriously, on a personal level, the needs of the poor, the hungry, the captives, the least of these.
The views of Karl Marx and many socialists who came after him contributed to this problem. Marx was a hard-liner when it came to those who held high the necessity of individual moral reform in the society of that time.
Consider this statement of Marxâ€™ in â€œThe German Ideology,â€ as quoted in Cornel Westâ€™s â€œThe Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought:â€
â€œThe communists do not preach morality at all. . . They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much as selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals.â€
In this polemic Marx was arguing against a position of certain philosophers in his day which detached the individual from the historic, class and social context in which s/he was brought up and lived. He was objecting to an essentially elitist point of view which blamed individuals, rather than the system, for problems which were primarily the result of unjust and oppressive social relations.
Although this criticism was sound, as far as it went, Marx and too many socialist revolutionaries since him have had a real blindspot when it comes to the connection between societal change and the need for individual revolutionaries to take seriously morality, ethics and the needs of the least of these.
Eugene Debs, on the other hand, was known for doing such things as returning home from meetings without an overcoat in winter because he came across a poor person without one.
Debs is also famous for these words: â€œWhile there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free.â€
As this difficult year ends, and as we make our plans for the new year, let these deep, challenging, almost-incredible U.S. socialistâ€™s words be taken to heart by many of us. Let us stay true, daily, to the best within us and the best within our traditions.
Like Che, let us â€œstrive every day so that (our) love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.â€
Ted Glick is National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (www.ippn.org) and author of Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society. He can be reached at [email protected] or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.